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Houses of worship open their doors, with caution

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 9, 2009 - The fatal shooting of the Rev. Fred Winters in the sanctuary of First Baptist Church in Maryville Sunday morning made many religious leaders and their staffs assess their security measures on Monday. Many had offered prayers for Winters, his family and his congregation and, with their staff, had been thinking about them all day.

"A tragedy like this forces you to sit up a take notice that things can happen when you least expect it," said the Rev. Larry Patton, an associate pastor at St. Matthew United Methodist Church in Belleville.

All major religions believe that their members must welcome strangers.

Patton turned to Matthew, the Gospel writer for whom his church is named, and quoted from Matthew's chronicle of Jesus teaching his disciples about Judgment Day (Matthew 25:35) "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world for I was ... a stranger and you welcomed me."

Finding a balance between welcoming the stranger and providing a safe haven where members can pray in peace is not as easy as it once was, Patton and other clergy said.

"You try to be alert to the possibility of tragic situations like in the Maryville church and at the same time you can't judge someone by appearance. That is simply sinful," Patton said. "We can't stand at the door and judge people."

"We also realize that we are living in a whole different world from the one I and most of us were raised in the 1940s and 1950s." he said. "We never heard of these things then. I remember on (NBC's Tonight Show) one night when Johnny Carson said the word pregnant it was bleeped. Today think what you see on television: violence, terrible things. And today in this country we don't make God feel welcome in schools or in courthouses. Politicians who won't let us mention God ... wonder why violence happens."

At his Belleville Methodist church, a small group of members who are state and local police officers have taken responsibility to be alert at its three Sunday services. The church draws about 1,000 people each week and, each weekend, a handful are strangers. For the Easter and Christmas pageants and concerts perhaps half the audience consists of strangers, he said. St. Matthew's police members don't wear their uniforms to church and don't carry arms. They are alert, he said. All have had serious discussions with him and with ushers about security.

"There is nothing wrong with people taking notice and being more alert," he said.

Over the years, his church has had break-ins and robberies but no violence, he said.

So far they have not hired security. "No so far," he said

Many churches employ security guards at night and on weekends.

A Security Plan

In the late 1980s, Grace Church St. Louis in Maryland Heights designed a church security plan that includes training ushers and greeters in recognizing possible behaviors that might lead to dangerous incidents. Over the years, with the help of police and security professionals, plans have been upgraded to include responses to natural, civil, criminal and health emergencies.

The large church's special focus is making members of people who never have attended church, said associate pastor Marty Haas. About 3,500 worship at Grace each Sunday, he said.

About 30 ushers and greeters are trained regularly in recognizing and reacting to behavior problem. A uniformed police officer patrols indoors and on the grounds at each weekend service. Unarmed security guards are indoors at all services and large meetings. Additional security guards are on duty late each evening.

Grace has sufficient police officers and security officials among its membership that some attend every service, he said. They do not wear uniforms. Their silent pager numbers are kept at a central location so they can be alerted in an emergency, he said.

So far, the part of the disaster plan that has been particularly helpful is the medical wing. Nurses and other medical professionals in the congregation have been beeped and then assisted other members suffering from falls, strokes or heart attacks until ambulances and paramedics arrived, Haas said.

On legal advice, Grace Church tightened procedures in its children's ministry. Now only the person who delivers a child is allowed to pick him or her up that day. The strictly enforced measure prevents any parent from defying a court order designed to keep him or her away from a child. The church also "uninvited" parents from its membership rolls after courts have ordered the individual not to see their children who attend the church.

Many of Grace's most faithful members began as visiting strangers.

"We have a very visitor friendly church; probably 5 to 10 percent of those who attend each weekend are new," Haas said. With a lot of people we don't know, who we don't have any reason to trust, we must use some caution. It's a crazy world. We have to make church a safe place."

For many churches welcoming the stranger also means feeding, clothing them and giving them shelter. In the same paragraphs of Matthew Jesus says that his Father will welcome those who feed, clothe and give shelter to the needy. Many churches have soup kitchens, food and clothing pantries, shelters or shuttle services to shelters.

Usually members rejoice when someone they are aiding begins worshipping with them. Still, they are prepared to be safe.

No Complete Safety

"There is no way to balance welcoming strangers with complete safety in the church," said the Rev. William Gillespie, pastor of Cote Brilliante Presbyterian Church in the city's Ville neighborhood.

With sorrow in his voice he recalled the murder of church employee Carol Bledsoe, 64, in the hallways of Christ Church Cathedral the week before Christmas 2003. A homeless man the church had been assisting stabbed her in the neck when she tried to quiet a commotion among the homeless.

"People with a mental situation want to be loved and at the same time don't know how to love someone else, then for them to take someone else's life is horrible."

These are powerfully unsettling times in America, he said. "Sometimes people want to blame someone for the mess," he said. "Sometimes they look to the person in the pulpit who can't do anything about the problems."

Leaders speaking truth from the pulpit often get negative reactions from the pews, he said,

"Often when you speak truth someone in the pews feels that the words are hurting them. They feel worn out. They can easily focus on the pastor and in the confusion take a life. How can you determine who that person is?"

Cote Brilliante hires security for its parking lot and to watch parishioners go to and from the church at night. St. Louis Police in the district have provided detailed advice to him and Cote Brilliante's ushers about safety alerts. Police have warned them about behavior oddities. Church leaders have to be alert themselves, Gillespie said.

The pastor of one suburban Baptist church who declined to have his church named said that the Maryville Church killing pushed him to set up a meeting with his local police on Thursday about upgrading security at his church.

"Now all we have is a burglar alarm for when we are away," he said. "We talked about a camera on the parking lot but that was too expensive. Now it's not car tampering I worry about."

Deacons and officers, police officers

At Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church, in the city's Hamilton Heights neighborhood, security guards oversee its parking lot and entrances for all worship services and major meetings. Several of the more than 30 deacons who attend have had security training.

"We are in better shape than most churches because we have active police officers who are church deacons, said Deacon James Joiner of Friendly Temple. "We are trained and we know our environment in a depressed area and can react to any strange action."

Homeless people, some with mental challenges, come to the church door daily. Church volunteers serve the needy hot meals every Wednesday. Other nights if they need shelter the church provides a ride to a shelter, Joiner said. However, all the high-tech security guards may have failed to save Rev. Fred Winters, Joiner said.

"I don't think that there is anyway to protect yourself from a person who is mentally ill and bent on doing wrong to someone. You do the best you can, without making the church a fortress.

"You have to depend on grace of God in order for you operate without fear, because He has promised that he would protect us but that doesn't mean that you don't take security measures meant to protect us."

No Metal Detectors

Citizens need to know that religious leaders are very aware of the real world, many said. The hope of all places of worship is that they could be safe havens and welcoming places, said Rabbi Jim Bennett, senior rabbi at Congregation Shaare Emeth.

He called the fatal shooting of First Baptist Maryville's pastor is a "horrible tragedy."

"All the security measures could not have guaranteed his safety," the rabbi said. "We live in a society sadly where this sort of thing happens. I grew up in a time when we didn't have to lock our doors. Children played outdoors for hours without their parents worrying about them. We don't live in a time or place like that. That's today's sad reality. "

His West County synagogue discreetly protects its members and staff. Doors are locked and visitors must be buzzed into the building and school by cheerful but carefully screening receptionists. At large worship services and gatherings "appropriate security guards" are on duty, Bennett said.

"We use the best security available to us when appropriate, when necessary," the rabbi said

"I don't think any churches, synagogues, temples, mosques or other places of worship want to have metal detectors or strip searches," he said.

Bennett echoed the theme of all religious leaders interviewed: "All of life is about balance. We are prudent while our goal is to always be welcoming."

Patricia Rice is a freelance journalist who has long covered the religious community.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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